In 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, a drama played out thousands of miles away in Beijing. Two court officials were arguing about how Italian Jesuits in China should be treated. One of these, Shen Que, was convinced that they were spreading seditious views and should be expelled forthwith. The other, Xu Guangqi, argued that the foreigners brought valuable new ideas to the country, enabling Confucianism and Christianity to engage respectfully with each other. In the end, the Jesuits were taken to the Portuguese territory of Macao, from where they were supposed to be sent to Europe; they stayed there, however, and two of them even returned to Beijing. Such ambivalence about foreign influence in China has lasted for centuries. We tend to hear much about the nationalistic, prickly part of China’s world-view these days. Timothy Brook’s Great State puts forward an elegant and compelling argument for why we should look at the cosmopolitan part of the Chinese mind-set as well.
First, Brook points out, China has always interacted with the rest of the world and has never been genuinely isolated from it. Second, China’s existence as a ‘Great State’ does not go back, as sweeping histories often suggest, to the ‘first emperor’, Qin Shi Huang, of terracotta army